Mexican Superstar Juan Gabriel Celebrated In His Hometown Of Juárez

By Mónica Ortiz Uribe
September 02, 2016
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Fans gather at Juan Gabriel's home near downtown Ciudad Juárez days after the singer's death.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Fans of Mexican superstar Juan Gabriel have adorned the ornate metal fence surrounding his home with flowers, flags and handwritten messages.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
A photo of a young Juan Gabriel adorns the outside of his home in Ciudad Juárez.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
The home of Mexican superstar Juan Gabriel will be the site of a tribute to the singer's life and work on Saturday, nearly a week after his death.

Fans of Mexican superstar Juan Gabriel will gather outside his home in Ciudad Juárez Saturday to pay tribute to the singer's life and work.

Hours after his death on Sunday fans began to gather outside the palatial mansion not far from the city's historic center. The party has been non-stop since then, complete with live mariachis. The ornate fencing around Gabriel's home is covered in multicolored wreaths, star shaped balloons and handwritten notes that say "thank you" or "I love you."

Police have shut off the street in front of the house for days, making room for T.V. reporters to do live stand ups and street vendors to peddle banners and trinkets commemorating Gabriel. While there's certainly tears shed by visitors to the site, the overwhelming emotion here is joy.   

"To speak of Juan Gabriel is to speak of Juárez," said Gloria Garcia, a local publicist wearing bright pink lipstick.

She stopped to join the throngs and sing along to her favorite songs. Garcia said that everyone in her household listens to Juan Gabriel including her mom, her kids and grandkids.

"He filled our hearts in a way that no artist can ever replace," she said.

To understand why, it's necessary to understand the singer's humble roots. Gabriel’s life played out like a telenovela, beginning on the tire-streaked pavement of downtown Juárez.

"He would sing in my brother's restaurant in exchange for meals," said Lucy Elguea, whose family owned a couple of rotisserie chicken eateries in the city center.

Gabriel spent most of his childhood in an orphanage. As he got older he performed anywhere he could— bars, buses and restaurants.

According to Elguea, Gabriel— who's birth name is Alberto Aguilera— kept an open tab at the restaurant she ran with her husband. Her husband, Jose Antonio Elguea, was also a musician who played with the Spanish band Los Churumbeles.  

One day Elguea said Gabriel came to ask her husband's opinion on a song he'd just written.

The song later turned out to be Gabriel's first hit and led to his first recording contract in 1971. Called "No Tengo Dinero" or "I don't have any money," the song is about choosing love over money, a common theme in Gabriel's music.

"He was just so humble and from the heart," said Justino Aguila, a freelance journalist who writes about Latin music for outlets like Billboard Magazine and the Hollywood Reporter.  "Because he really is a true rags to riches story I think people resonated with that. You could be a mechanic or you could be a wealthy Latino millionaire or billionaire and Juan Gabriel got to you either way."

And that was the secret to Gabriel's success. He could fill major concert halls in the U.S. and Mexico.

In 2009 he was named Person of the Year by the Latin Recording Academy and was nominated for two Grammy awards. He penned at least 1,500 songs, dozens of which made the top of the charts in a career that spanned 45 years. A day after Gabriel's death President Obama called him a beloved artist who transcended borders and generations.  

And the next generation of musicians is certainly carrying on the adoration for Gabriel. His latest two albums feature revamped versions of his duets with hot new Latin artists. He was on tour promoting those albums when he suffered a heart attack the morning before he was scheduled to perform in El Paso, right across the border from his hometown.

In a studio apartment a trio of young Juárez musicians recently rehearsed one of Gabriel's duets. Sergio Duran, 22, studied for 15 years in a boys’ boarding school founded by Juan Gabriel. The school closed a year ago when funding dried up. Duran was an orphan himself when he started there. Now he's earns a living making music.  

"Without that opportunity I don’t know where I’d be," Duran said. "Juan Gabriel is my idol."